Rangi Walker – visionary

Rangi WalkerIn the protest decade of the 60s and 1970s, my reporting beat covered Auckland University where, being the Sixties, full-time students were also part-time protesters.

Their activism embraced everything from feminism and environmental issues to the most riveting of the time – the growing protests against the Vietnam War and Apartheid.

Often unseen behind these larger movements but emerging from race issues in the anti-Apartheid movement, was the status of Maori in New Zealand. On the public frontlines at the time was Arts student Syd Jackson and his wife Hana. Jackson went on to lead the first, historic protest to Waitangi in 1971.

But other leading Maori at the time also began to shape public opinion and the most consistent and influential was Dr Rangi Walker. Walker was a lean ascetic academic who seemed almost shy when he first spoke on a marae. “Not enough Maori in him” one of his own joked as he watched him speak.

Perhaps, but Dr Walker went on to set the intellectual framework for the Maori renaissance. He could be as abrasive in public as he was gentle in private. He was in his own way, a warrior who consistently articulated a new future for Maori at the same time as he sought to redress historic grievances.

He had an unsettling frankness which upset the Pakeha Establishment. But he had been hurt by Pakeha discrimination. Walker told Radio New Zealand in 2009 that as a young man he was at Training College in Auckland.

“Come the summer vacation when our hostel closed, we got jobs at the freezing works. We telephoned for accommodation and were accepted. When we arrived to pick up the key, the agent said ‘Sorry, no coloured people’. Now that is one hell of a disappointment for a person growing up in New Zealand and believing that the world is your oyster”.

He wasn’t alone in these rebuffs. Harry Dansey, who was also a cartoonist, applied for a reporter’s job at the NZ Herald and, as he told me years later, met the editor who looked puzzled. “We don’t hire Maoris” he told Harry, who then walked across Queen Street to the Auckland Star and became a legendary columnist, one of the first to bridge the gap between the races. He went on to become Race Relations Conciliator.

Rangi’s preferred weapons were the rapier of his pen and equally sharp analytical intelligence which he applied to the future of Maori. His writing was often provocative as he flayed flabby arguments. As a result he was loathed by rednecks. Though I have countless memories of him, two stand at polar opposites of his life.

The first was when he was deeply embroiled in a controversy rather more tense than others. He told me then that he slept with a gun by his side.

The other was a rather more sunlit recollection. He had retired and was not just content but living each moment to the full. This wasn’t the intensely focused critic I had come to know. He couldn’t stop grinning and wouldn’t talk about anything so boring as issues because… he was about to go fishing.

Like any ardent advocate, his views were not always impartial. When Maori protesters attempted to thwart Dame Whina Cooper’s investiture at Waitangi in 1981, she was nearly knocked over. Her son Henry said that a protester jumped on the rostrum and appeared to make a lunge towards his mother. “I stepped across and plonked him” he said. The 20 police stationed outside the marae rushed in and brawls broke out all over the marae leaving Rangi looking ashen-faced. Yet in his book Years of Anger he wrote an account which differed markedly from what reporters witnessed, one which almost absolved the protesters of any responsibility.

In the broader scheme of things though he contributed hugely to the debate about institutional change for Maori. In a policy paper adopted by Mana Motuhake, he proposed among other measures:

  • The re-writing of statutes to include Maori law and customary use where appropriate.
  • That all future legislation be based on ‘bicultural consultation planning and execution’.
  • All schools to begin making Maori language an integral part of the school curriculum.

That paper, adopted by the party, was written in early May 1980. Now its once controversial proposals are pretty much the status quo. That’s the mark of a successful visionary. RIP Rangi.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.